Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)

Part III

Chapter 20. Biological Sciences

[1956]

CARSON AGREED TO CONTRIBUTE an essay and select a bibliography on the biological sciences for Good Reading, a reference book sponsored by the National Council of the Teachers of English. Although the Council paid contributors handsomely, Carson found that putting together the bibliography of the best books in the biological sciences required a great deal more work than she had anticipated.

Her brief introduction to the books she finally selected provides insight into her attitudes toward science in general and to biology in particular at a time when she anticipated beginning her own research for a book on evolutionary biology.

Carson emphasizes the new science of ecology in her definition of the scope of the biological sciences, reinforcing her view that “nothing lives unto itself.” Lamenting the remoteness of science from the average citizen, Carson characteristically recommended that students explore their subjects first in nature and in the writings of the great naturalists before venturing into the laboratory.

image THE SCOPE OF BIOLOGY can be truly defined only in broad terms as the history of the earth and all its life – the past, the present, and the future. Any definition of lesser scope becomes narrow and academic and fails utterly to convey the majestic sweep of the subject in time and space, embracing all that has made man what he is, and holding a foretaste of what he may yet become. For it has dawned upon us in these recent years of the maturing of our science that neither man nor any other living creature may be studied or comprehended apart from the world in which he lives; that such restricted studies as the classification of plants and animals or descriptions of their anatomy and physiology (upon which the early biologists necessarily focused their attention) are but one small facet of a subject so many-sided, so rich in beauty and fascination, and so filled with significance that no informed reader can neglect it.

In the truest sense, there is no separate literature of biology or of any science. Knowledge of the facts of science is not the prerogative of a small number of men, isolated in their laboratories, but belongs to all men, for the realities of science are the realities of life itself. We cannot understand the problems that concern us in this, our particular moment of time, unless we first understand our environment and the forces that have made us what we are, physically and mentally.

Biology deals with the living creatures of the living earth. Pleasure in color, form, and movement, awareness of the amazing diversity of life, and the enjoyment of natural beauty are part of man’s heritage as a living creature. Our first conscious acquaintance with the subject should come, if possible, through nature – in fields and forests and on the shore; secondarily and by way of amplification and verification we should then explore its laboratory aspects. Some of the most gifted and imaginative biologists have first approached their subject through the medium of sensory impression and emotional response. The most memorable writings – though they be addressed to the intellect – are rooted in man’s emotional reaction to that life stream of which he is a part. The writing of the great naturalists such as Hudson and Thoreau, most easily sampled in some of the excellent anthologies now available, has a valid place in one’s reading in the field of biology.

As the frontiers of science expand, there is inevitably an increasing trend toward specialization, in which all the mental faculties of a man or group of men are brought to bear upon a single aspect of some problem. But there is fortunately a counter tendency, which brings different specialists together to work in cooperation. Oceanographic expeditions commonly include biologists, chemists, physicists, geologists, and meteorologists, so diverse are the problems presented by one aspect of the earth’s surface. Atomic physicists, by discovering that radioactive elements in fossils and minerals disintegrate at a rate that may be determined, have provided biologists with a tool that has already revolutionized our concept of the age of the earth and permits a far more accurate approach than ever before to the problem of the evolution of man himself. Chemists and geneticists, by joining forces, seem to be solving the riddle of the gene and the actual means by which it produces hereditary characteristics.

Only within the 20th Century has biological thought been focused on ecology, or the relation of the living creature to its environment. Awareness of ecological relationships is – or should be – the basis of modern conservation programs, for it is useless to attempt to preserve a living species unless the kind of land or water it requires is also preserved. So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all – perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.

If we have been slow to develop the general concepts of ecology and conservation, we have been even more tardy in recognizing the facts of the ecology and conservation of man himself. We may hope that this will be the next major phase in the development of biology. Here and there awareness is growing that man, far from being the overlord of all creation, is himself part of nature, subject to the same cosmic forces that control all other life. Man’s future welfare and probably even his survival depend upon his learning to live in harmony, rather than in combat, with these forces. [ … ]